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Moby Dick Chapter 52: “The Albatross”

October 27, 2022

Whether one thinks of Herman Melville’s epic “Moby Dick” to be one of the Great American Novels, or an overwrought, overlong excercise in cetacaen arcana, it’s hard to overlook the heights of poetry he attains in the best of his chapters. “The Albatross attains those heights, “where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.” Chapter 52 begins below.

South-eastward from the Cape, off the distant Crozetts, a good cruising ground for Right Whalemen, a sail loomed ahead, the Goney (Albatross) by name. As she slowly drew nigh, from my lofty perch at the fore-mast-head, I had a good view of that sight so remarkable to a tyro in the far ocean fisheries- a whaler at sea, and long absent from home.

As if the waves had been fullers, this craft was bleached like the skeleton of a stranded walrus. All down her sides, this spectral appearance was traced with long channels of reddened rust, while all her spars and her rigging were like the thick branches of trees furred over with hoar-frost. Only her lower sails were set. A wild sight it was to see her long-bearded look-outs at those three mast-heads. They seemed clad in the skins of beasts, so torn and bepatched the raiment that had survived nearly four years of cruising. Standing in iron hoops nailed to the mast, they swayed and swung over a fathomless sea; and though, when the ship slowly glided close under our stern, we six men in the air came so nigh to each other that we might almost have leaped from the mast-heads of one ship to those of the other; yet, those forlorn-looking fishermen, mildly eyeing us as they passed, said not one word to our own look-outs, while the quarter-deck hail was being heard from below.

“Ship ahoy! Have ye seen the White Whale?”

But as the strange captain, leaning over the pallid bulwarks, was in the act of putting his trumpet to his mouth, it somehow fell from his hand into the sea; and the wind now rising amain, he in vain strove to make himself heard without it. Meantime his ship was still increasing the distance between us. While in various silent ways the seamen of the Pequod were evincing their observance of this ominous incident at the first mere mention of the White Whale’s name to another ship, Ahab for a moment paused; it almost seemed as though he would have lowered a boat to board the stranger, had not the threatening wind forbade. But taking advantage of his windward position, he again seized his trumpet, and knowing by her aspect that the stranger vessel was a Nantucketer and shortly bound home, he loudly hailed- “Ahoy there! This is the Pequod, bound round the world! Tell them to address all future letters to the Pacific ocean! and this time three years, if I am not at home, tell them to address them to-”

At that moment the two wakes were fairly crossed, and instantly, then, in accordance with their singular ways, shoals of small harmless fish, that for some days before had been placidly swimming by our side, darted away with what seemed shuddering fins, and ranged themselves fore and aft with the stranger’s flanks. Though in the course of his continual voyagings Ahab must often before have noticed a similar sight, yet, to any monomaniac man, the veriest trifles capriciously carry meanings.

“Swim away from me, do ye?” murmured Ahab, gazing over into the water. There seemed but little in the words, but the tone conveyed more of deep helpless sadness than the insane old man had ever before evinced. But turning to the steersman, who thus far had been holding the ship in the wind to diminish her headway, he cried out in his old lion voice,- “Up helm! Keep her off round the world!”

Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.

.

Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of the demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.

# # #

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Ukraine

March 6, 2022

[I do not have a source for this powerful photograph, so am unable to give proper credit here]

If you aren’t familiar with the history of Ukraine, read this essay in today’s New York Times Review: “The Ukraine of My Childhood Is Being Erased” by Lev Golinkin. You will understand why they will not give up this fight, and why the people of Ukraine and free societies around the world deserve our support.

A Christmas Memory

December 24, 2021

While driving homeward last night, listening to the faintly traditional music cued to the more reflective moments of the holiday season, my thoughts went back. as they are wont to do, to Christmases past.  As my years seem to mount up, the memories of most of them have become blurred or irretrievable.  I have little clear recollection of any of the gifts I may have received, or given—other than some of those from childhood.  A sled, for one, arrived on a fortuitously white Christmas morning in 1960.

Another stands out.  In the first year of my first marriage, my bride and I—college students then, not quite penniless but not far from it.  She was much more attuned to things than I was in general, more generous of spirit.  She suggested we contact the welfare department (words we no longer use) in the city where we made our home, and see if there was a needy family that could use a little help in salvaging their own Christmas.  With our own collected pennies, we could buy for them what they could not buy for themselves.

Of course, given our own modest circumstances, we could not afford much.  We were given the name of a family and the first names of the children, and a short list of what they really needed.  Not toys.  This was not about piling toys under a tree, but about filling some basic needs.

The only thing I recall after all these years, is a new cloth jacket for a five-year-old—lined, maybe even quilted.  The winters can get cold in West Virginia.  The fabric was white with tiny blue (or was it green) flowers all over it—sort of alyssum in reverse.  There were a few other items as well—probably of the socks and underwear variety, possibly an inexpensive toy or two.  We must have gotten a thank you note afterward, I don’t recall.

The mental image of that jacket, and walls of the apartment we lived in at the time, has remained with me all these years.  So it is not so much the gifts we get that we recall, as—at least sometimes—the gifts we give.  And why we chose them.

We had other items under our tree, for our newlywed selves.  The guitar I still have.  And this—the recollection of that jacket, and the lesson I learned that year, that has remained with me ever since.  “It is better to give than to receive.” 

“What You Have Heard Is True”—Carolyn Forché unveils a brutal truth

December 5, 2021

In terms of structure, content, lyricism, and ultimate power to open a reader’s eyes to the world as it is, I think this book has no equal. The best prose has a lot of poetry in it, and “What You Have Heard Is True” is both lyrical and powerful in unexpected ways.  Although Carolyn Forché ‘s experiences at the start of the long El Salvador civil war (1979-1992) took place decades ago, we can be assured that similar human rights abuses are still going on in nations throughout the world.

This book is not a history of that war, nor is it a “political” work with a specific agenda.  Rather it is a clear-eyed view of the worst things that people do against each other, under the blinding influences of greed and power.  Her book or poetry “The Country Between Us,” written during that era, exposes those influences in that moment. The current book, her memoir of those years, takes you back to that time, reliving it minute by minute, very slowly opening the reader’s eyes as her own eyes are opening as well, learning to see.  The man who led her through all this, Leonel Gomez Vides, taught her to see, and left up to her how best to express what it was she saw.  “’Are you going to write poetry about yourself for the rest of your life?’” he asks her at the beginning of the book, before she even knows him, before she goes to El Salvador.  “’Try to see,’ Leonel had said.  It was what he was asking me to do.  Try to see.  Look at the world, he’d say, not at the mirror.”

We share her experiences in that impoverished country, wondering (like she does) where exactly is he taking her, all this coming and going throughout the countryside.  Who are all these people she meets—colonels and campesinos—in all these barrios and villages and camps and colonias?  Why is she even there?  Leonel is not really forthcoming; he wants her to learn to see, to think for herself.  We—and she—don’t really know for sure, until the middle of the book.  She had been covertly been taken into a prison to witness the solitary confinement there, and after that a clandestine and forbidden meeting with a group of Salvadoran poets, it all comes into focus.  “That night I knew that something had changed for me. . . . I never saw the young poets again.  I don’t know what happened to them, if they survived or are among the dead. . .  But the woman who went into the prison in Ahuachapán left herself behind in a barrio called La Fosa, the grave.”

This is a book that for me takes a long time to read, and not without a pencil nearby to mark out the lines that mean the most, on the many dogeared pages. 

And having read thus far, I am compelled to ask myself “What is my role in all this?”  Did I have one in 1979?  Do I have one today?  Can I leave it to my government to stand guard against human rights abuses in other nations around the world? 

Probably not.  As Leonel reminds Forché, “I have seldom seen the Americans serious about human rights unless it is politically convenient for them.”

A Gift I Seem to Have Given Myself

October 25, 2021

When I entered college in 1968 I chose for a major (of course) “English” imagining that one day I might write the Great American Novel (that day has yet to come.)  But I did invest my intellectual energy into the field, and bought a few hardcover books (text and otherwise) which were of such importance to me then, that I thought I should hang onto them.

Which brings me to tonight, when musing about the bookshelves that are the primary décor of Sky Ranch, I came upon my ancient Modern Library (the small 4-1/2”x7-1/2” edition) of “The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne.”

And tonight I find myself laughing out loud at some of the wittier lines from his Songs and Sonnets, and heavily reflecting on some of the pithier ones from his Sermons.

That is the idea of literature.  That the words first written four hundred years ago and preserved for one person’s attention fifty years ago continue to stimulate the response for which they were first intended.

P.S.  The Donne collection is in practically mint condition, having remained unread all these years.

“The Somers Affair,” a playwright’s thoughts on the opening scene.

October 9, 2021

An unusual confluence of unrelated circumstances recently recalled to my attention a full-length play I wrote in 2014, and had set aside for a time.  Seven years, as it turned out.  But having returned to it, I prepared the script for a reading at a zoom “Scene Night” where members of our local playwrights’ center share individual scenes—cold-read by actors—for comment.

Great way to find some of the scene’s shortcomings on your own, and find others targeted by your peers.  And to make you think about how the whole arrangement works through the spoken words of your characters, and how the writer’s job is to write—not direct, regardless of the temptation to do so through stage direction.  Some of the reaction—wishing a character had spoken or reacted differently in the script—would have been justified, except:  since we only do one scene, only I knew that the apparently inappropriate reaction in the first, is a setting up for a resolution in the next.  But only I could know that.

Which brings me to some wisdom from the Scottish actor Brian Cox—here quoted in NYT Magazine 19.3.21:

“Well, what I love,” he said, “is a director who understands text.  Because without the writing, you’re nothing. . . . The thing that compels people to say:  ‘Who is this guy [the character]?  What is he doing?’—you must always keep to that.  You must keep that sense of what is excluded from the audience. . . .”

Wisdom from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” 1392

September 30, 2021

From the Reeve’s Tale:

“I have herd seyd, ‘man sal taa of twa thynges,

Slyk as he fyndes, or taa slyk as he brynges.’”

. . . . that is to say. . . .

“I have heard it said, ‘a man must choose one of two things,

That which he finds, and that which he brings.’”

Think about it. . . .

[Read the whole tale in the original Middle English, lines 3921-4328 in “The Canterbury Tales”]

Twelfth Night in the afternoon, at last

August 21, 2021

How absolutely refreshing to be able to sit before a live theatrical ensemble once again, and take in all the action and color and nuance and spoken word in all its remarkable glory.  And how even more refreshing when the play is Shakespeare’s intricate Twelfth Night, and the ensemble is Mill Valley’s talented Curtain Theatre.

The show—another of the Bard’s cross-dressing, mistaken-identity plays, this one directed by Michele Delattre—is full of delicious performances, clever machinations, and wonderfully-conceived choreography—not to mention the live-performance original-music soundtrack you won’t hear anywhere else.

You already may know the plot—how a twin brother and sister, separated in a shipwreck, learn to use their wiles, especially the sister Viola (Isabelle Grimm) to seek their best advantage in the country where they have come ashore.  There are laughs aplenty brought forth by the wildly funny antics of Feste the fool (Heather Cherry), Sir Toby Belch (Glenn Havlan), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Steve Beecroft—who also produced and choreographed the setpieces), and Malvolio (Grey Wolf).  Not to mention the sweetly comedic and hopelessly lovesick Countess Olivia (Faryn Thomure in her first Curtain appearance), whose captivating fan-dance was one of the most memorable high-points of a show that has far too many such high-points to call out them all.

Kudos also to the set designer for making the most of the spare outdoor stage and costume design for the intermingling of semi-modern and traditional old English apparel for laughs as well as poignant confusion in the conflicted character of Viola/Cesario.

You’ll have to go see for yourself.  You still have a few more weekends to take in this pleasure, and there’s plenty of room for social distancing in the Old Mill Park Amphitheatre in the shade of the redwoods. Bring a sweater, it may get cool—and some cash.   While these performances are free, donations are always welcome.


Saturdays, Sundays and Labor Day Monday, August 14 to September 6, 2021
All shows at 2:00 PM
Old Mill Park Amphitheatre | Mill Valley, CA

The secret to great prose

May 5, 2021

“Great storytellers make readers co-authors, letting them complete with their imaginations what has been left unsaid on the printed page.”

–Bernard F. Dick, NYT Book Review (letter) 5.2.21

This may be the secret we have all been looking for. Occasionally in Hemingway you can find this idea at work, but you have to keep looking.

Confluence

October 4, 2020

Is it too much to say that all things are linked, all experiences somehow tied together?   That events and circumstances seemingly unconnected are in fact inextricably linked, that there is no such thing as unintended coincidence?

Sunsets happen every single day, in every single place on the planet.  Only some are visible.  Some horizons are hidden behind mountains and city skylines, some beyond low-lying layers of cloud or the rim of the earth in the polar distance.  There is never a day or a place that they don’t happen, only days and places where we cannot see them.

The shores of western seas are the best places to observe the splitting of the sun into diminishing halves as it slowly sinks into the water, or more technically beneath the level horizon.  The astronomy of the situation determines that the visible sun sets at a farthest north on the 21st day of December every year, dividing the shortest day from the longest night.  And likewise, the summer solstice, that farthest-south track of the setting sun, divides the longest day from the shortest night.

And twice each year, that same track passes the place where the lengths of day and night are equal, the equinoxes, vernal and autumnal.  These are days of some significance, always.  Some ancient civilizations marked these equinoxes with stone monuments set to align that exact line of shadow, from horizon to near stone to far stone.  One has to be present, beside these lines of stone, along this line of light, on these particular days, at that moment when the sun makes that final setting.

Otherwise, these are just stones in a line, a line with no obvious significance.

At Point Arena lighthouse on the coast of California, a stone wall has been built, vertical slabs of stone set parallel to each other, in a line.  A fence—not quite a wall.  Its construction fulfills an apparent need to mark a property line running due east and west, a boundary to a park, an implacable barrier to vehicular traffic.  That much is obvious.

The wall has a Celtic beauty all its own, worthy of closer investigation into the details of its construction.  Flat labs of stone perhaps 4” thick, quarried not far away, resemble the native rock just at the waterline at the foot of the bluff below, sometimes covered by the tide and surging waves, and sometimes revealed.  They stand on end like huge slices of brown bread in a row, at varying 4’ heights with 4” stone spacers between them.  Viewed from either side, the wall has the airy lightness of a California grapestake fence.  At intervals, a placement of much more substantial stones will supply the structural stability that thin slabs alone will not maintain over eons. 

Their deeper significance can only be seen in that rare confluence of the equinox come only twice in a year, and a horizon come clear enough to divide the setting sun into its equal halves, and a curious mind directs the eye to look down that line at sunset, to observe at that very moment the astronomical calendar in all its primitive, elemental glory.

Viewed from the wall’s eastern end, sighting along the pointed tops of the slabs, it becomes clear they are erected in a dead-straight line pointing out to the sea, toward a horizon only intermittently visible in the alternating fogs of this cold and wind-driven coastline.

Equinox, Pt. Arena 9.21.20